Science fair projects have come a long way since the days of the baking soda volcano. This year's White House Science Fair featured high-tech experiments, including an Ebola diagnostic test and a subway-cleaning robot. It's clear from a glance that while the kids who completed and presented the experiments are talented and bright young students, none of the projects would have been remotely possible without substantial resources and the help of experienced scientists. In fact, that's one thing that hasn't changed: mentorship and guidance can make or break a science fair project for a child, and likely even their interest in science, technology, engineering, and math. That's where The Bruin Experiment comes in.
The Bruin Experiment (TBE), founded by two UCLA students, pairs underserved middle-schoolers with undergraduate mentors to work together to brainstorm and complete science projects. Mentors provide the support that kids need to come up with creative experiments, and a science fair is held to celebrate the students' hard work.
This year's students were from Palms Middle School and the Los Angeles Center for Enriched Studies. Both are Title I schools, meaning that at least 40% of the students are from low-income families. Undergraduate mentors met with students weekly for fifteen weeks. Each week the classes learned about a scientist or a scientific concept, followed by a lesson about a step of the scientific method and a related activity – designing hypotheses, carrying out the experiments, etc. This routine in-person guidance is key to getting kids excited and interested in their projects. "If you provide kids with mentorship, there's no limit to what they can do," said Daniel Haiem, president and co-founder of TBE.
Haiem's own experience with childhood science fairs was less-than-ideal, though unfortunately common: his parents, with no background or interest in science, were ill-equipped to help him with his project. As a result, he dreaded the fair every year and chose the easiest project he could think of. "I was very intimidated and fearful of the sciences, [and felt they were] way beyond me,” said Haiem, noting that it wasn't until he had a supportive teacher in the 10th grade that he discovered a love of math and science. In contrast, TBE co-founder Katie Mowris had engineers for parents, and enjoyed coming up with interesting experiments. This difference is what led to the creation of TBE – if kids had access to mentors with an interest in science, who would push them to be creative and curious, then there might just be fewer feelings of dread when science project time rolls around.
That's not to say students don't have to work hard. Not only do they have to come up with their own project, but they must also write a proposal requesting funds to buy materials, just like professional scientists do. After receiving their supplies (thanks to support from UCLA and several community organizations), they do the experiments with mentors' guidance, revising their plan as necessary.
On the big day, students go on a tour of the UCLA campus to pump up school spirit. Students present posters at the fair, which is judged by UCLA faculty. Just what did those students come up with? One student tested which ingredients in a soda bottle rocket produced the most lift. Another cultivated the bacteria growing on money, tested them for antibiotic resistance, and did Gram stains to learn more about which types of bacteria were present. The first place winner identified changes in heart rates during movies and video games. Other students learned to code and one even created a phone app which was used as an educational tool in class. Projects were creative, well-designed, and the students clearly knew their stuff (see the video of science fair day below).
The success of TBE at UCLA could be easily translated to other universities; in fact, The Gaucho Experiment at UC Santa Barbara is hosting its inaugural science fair this year. Haiem, who has graduated from UCLA with a degree in neuroscience, hopes to expand to even more schools and plans to repeat the process at UCLA. In the meantime, he is working to form a network for TBE alumni (mentors and students) to stay in touch.
The mentorship provided by TBE gives kids who might otherwise be turned off by science the chance to question, explore and invent. As far as science projects go, The Bruin Experiment itself is worthy of first place.
Readers interested in forming a branch of The ___ Experiment at their own institution or who would like to contribute to an existing branch can contact: TheBruinExperiment@gmail.com.
Amanda Freise (@AmandaFreise)
Editor-in-Chief, Signal to Noise
PhD Candidate, Molecular and Medical Pharmacology, UCLA